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The DanceView Times, New York edition

I'm Old Fashioned

Who Cares?, Barber Violin Concerto, I’m Old Fashioned
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
May 29, 2004

by Mindy Aloff
copyright © 2004 by Mindy Aloff
published May 31, 2004

Jerome Robbins completed I’m Old Fashioned, “dedicated to Fred Astaire,” in the first half of 1983; the ballet was given its première on Bloomsday of that year. I saw the work in its first season and have seen a number of casts in it subsequently: at no time, before I witnessed its exquisite performance this week, did it ever occur to me that Robbins might have been making an indirect tribute to George Balanchine, who had died on 23 April 1983. As I remember, the only frames of reference that I and many other dancegoers used to evaluate I’m Old Fashioned were Astaire’s own movies and Robbins’s own Glass Pieces, a leotard-and-class-skirt ballet to excerpts from Philip Glass’s Glassworks and his opera Akhnaten, which was given its première in May ‘83. Most of these evaluations found I’m Old Fashioned wanting—a misreading of Astaire’s style and an overly sentimental showcase for NYCB. (In her review of the Astaire ballet in The New Yorker, Arlene Croce also compared it with Balanchine’s Gershwin suite, Who Cares? The other night, NYCB also invited that comparison: Who Cares? opened the program.) Now I’m beginning to wonder if Glass Pieces, too, wasn’t a Balanchine tribute of an indirect kind. I have no scholarly sources to verify what Robbins was thinking when he made either work in that year. The increased warmth that I feel toward this ballet originates entirely from its recent performance, which was carefully rehearsed, warmly presented, and graced by the last-minute casting of Carla Körbes, with Arch Higgins, in one of the three principal duets. The limpid quality of Körbes’s dancing in partnered roles so elevates the tone of whatever ballet she’s in that it makes everyone seem part of a streaming whole. The other principal couples—Rachel Rutherford with Jared Angle and Jenifer Ringer with Sébastien Marcovici (also a last-minute substitution)—looked enchanting. It helped, too, that the music, conducted by Richard Moredock, was tenderly played.

I’m Old Fashioned, for three principal couples and a corps of nine men and nine women, all in Florence Klotz’s stage version of evening wear, is a theme-and-variations ballet, both choreographically and musically. The choreography, which is introduced by a larger-than-life-sized film clip of the original dance and which concludes with a huge rescreening of same, is based on a four and a-half minute duet that Astaire performed with Rita Hayworth in the 1942 motion picture You Were Never Lovelier, the second of two pictures that Astaire made with Hayworth during the War. (Astaire worked out the dances with Val Raset according to the screen credit; however, there is a probability that Hayworth, a trained dancer and the daughter of Spanish dancer Eduardo Cansino, contributed greatly to them.) The score for the Robbins ballet, by Robbins’s erstwhile collaborator Morton Gould (who had composed the score for Interplay), analyzes and develops elements of the ballad that Jerome Kern wrote for You Were Never Lovelier. Kern’s “I’m Old Fashioned,” with lyrics by Astaire’s friend Johnny Mercer, is sung on screen by Hayworth and, as Croce reminded readers, on the soundtrack by Nan Wynn. Another Astaire scholar, John Mueller, has noted that it’s one of only two dances to love songs in Astaire’s entire film career that are introduced by a female singer and that both of those dances proceed from a romantic image of tentative intimacy to an anti-romantic showiness. The setting for Robbins’s ballet is a lighting projection of New York skyscrapers at night, which becomes transformed, during the duet for the couple in blue (Ringer and Marcovici), to a star-filled firmament.

In the course of the ballet, one hears rhythms that sound like those of the rumba and that may, in fact, be the related danzón, the rhythm of the solo that Robbins, himself, performed as the third sailor in his 1944 Fancy Free. Indeed, as Mueller observes, elements of that solo seem to have been borrowed from a solo that Astaire performs elsewhere in You Were Never Lovelier, and elements of both of them, refracted, appear in a solo for a man (Arch Higgins, I think) in I’m Old Fashioned. Clearly, the Astaire and Hayworth partnership had some personal import for Robbins—an aspect of the work that wasn’t visible two decades ago. In the ballet, this allusive solo is performed as an act of self-consolation, after the guy’s girl has been waltzed away by another guy. It’s too complicated to go into all the career and biographical suggestions here, but I couldn’t help thinking of the story that Robbins biographer Amanda Vaill published in the late 1990’s, in which she explained that Tanaquil LeClercq turned down Robbins for Balanchine yet LeClercq remained an abiding love of Robbins’s until his death. At the end of I’m Old Fashioned, for the huge re-screening of Astaire and Hayworth in the original number, the women have changed from dresses of differentiating color to uniformly black dresses very similar to the one that Hayworth wears. The 12 couples, deeply shadowed, attempt to perform the Astaire-Hayworth duet along with the movie couple, but they stop and stand and raise their arms in a gesture of tribute.

And, I think now, of valediction. Fred Astaire was everyone’s favorite dancer, including, famously, Balanchine’s. Given the many mixed feelings that were surely involved in the immediate aftermath of Balanchine’s death, it may have been that Robbins had an easier time addressing Astaire for a tribute than Balanchine, directly. Also, indirection, with its possibilities for many levels of conflicting emotion, would have been in the sprit of the Balanchine-Kirstein enterprise. One has only to look at the 1970 Who Cares?—which Jack Anderson has ingeniously interpreted in a recent New York Times review as a ballet about several friends engaged in deep conversation—and remember that it was made as Balanchine was rebounding from rejection in love, to see a precedent for indirect emotional expression in the Balanchine repertory. (Balanchine preferred “construction” to “expression,” of course.) Well, whatever the interpretation, the wonder to me now is how lightly, how apparently offhand, that Robbins vignette of disappointment is. I was also astonished to rediscover some very fine, extremely long, Balanchinian phrases of partnering in I’m Old Fashioned. And, listening, I was reminded that Gould had worked for years with Balanchine on a projected ballet about James Audubon, which never came into being.

With Sofiane Sylve (as the turning girl in blue), Ashley Bouder (as the jumper in red), and Miranda Weese (as the rhythm girl in pale peach), Who Cares? now has a cast worth going to see; Nilas Martins, in the Jacques d’Amboise-Apollo role, was much more engaged in this performance than the previous one I’d seen the week before; conductor Richard Fletcher, a guest, kept the ballet moving along with crisp clip, although there was one moment of silence, after the overture, when my heart stopped. I don’t recall that silence from earlier decades. Who Cares? takes place in New York over a 24-hour period. The daytime section is for the corps of 10 women in blue, five demi-soloist women in red, and five men. I supposed that everyone else has noticed how carefully Balanchine built that daylight section to anticipate the man-and-three-ballerinas conversation of the nighttime section: I didn’t see that until May 29th, and I’ve watched this ballet many times. Who Cares? was given its world première on February5, 1970; In the Night, Robbins's own nighttime conversationfor three couples was first performed on January 29 of that year. There seems to have been a lot of cross-watching going on somewhere in those State Theater rehearsal rooms, and all to the good for everyone.

Barber Violin Concerto, by Peter Martins, also on the bill, received a deeply committed performance by Darci Kistler and Ask la Cour (as the classical leads) and Ashley Bouder and Jock Soto (as the barefoot modern-dance leads). This ballet of elective affinities between two couples has retained its narrative clarity and touches of poignancy since it was first danced, in 1988, with Merrill Ashley and Adam Lüders of NYCB and guests David Parsons and Kate Johnson from the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Bouder isn't as fleet as Johnson, but she's equally game, and the ballet's rather psychotic last moment, in which la Cour, as the Lüders figure, throws Bouder, as the pestering Johnson figure, on her back, remains a minor coup de théâtre. Andrea Quinn's conducting and the soaring tone of Arturo Delmoni's solo violin helped to establish beauty and warmth for a ballet in which everything falls apart.

Photo:  The cast of I'm Old Fashioned, with Hayworth and Astaire projected behind them. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 20
May 31, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Mindy Aloff



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on May 17, 2004